The Selfish Series: A Column About Putting Ourselves First
In a meeting with a career counselor, I toyed with ideas about my future.
“Would you want to teach?” she asked me. I thought about it for a bit. Teaching is important work. The world needs more teachers. I’m patient and kind. Kids generally like me.
“I could do it,” I said.
“You could do a lot of things. What do you want to do?” I scanned the room, gazing at the shelf of books about landing an interview, negotiating salary, getting the job you really want. A quote in a little plastic stand on the coffee table caught my eye. It read, “What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The question terrified me. Because what I really want to do, what ignited a spark inside me, was not what I felt I was supposed to do. As the Jewish daughter of two parents in the nonprofit sector, I had already decided that I wasn’t reaching my full potential if I wasn’t helping people or trying to change the world.
“I want to get an MFA. I want to write.”
“What’s stopping you?” she prodded.
“I think it’s selfish.”
“Would it be selfish if you were a man?”
I tried to picture a man saying he wanted to pursue writing as a career. The “s” word didn’t enter my mind. I would have found it admirable. I probably would have been jealous that he had the courage to put his creative passion first. But then I thought about women I knew who had pursued the arts instead of or on top of their “helping professions.” I knew many women who had quit their jobs to pursue writing or set aside time in their lives to work on art. I didn’t look down on them in the least. In a way, I wanted to be them. It just felt like a selfish choice for me. Something inside me was saying I wasn’t allowed to do it.
When female family and friends ask for my advice, I lean towards the “selfish” response. For example, if a friend is not happy with her job, I tell her to quit. If a relationship is bogging her down, I’ll tell her she can find someone better. This is not to say we shouldn’t think about how our decisions affect others, but we, as women, do that too often. Like most advice we give others, however, it’s easier said than done. I realized in the counseling session that while I fancied myself a feminist, I had not given much thought to the effect of sexism on my own professional life.
I’ve been thinking since then about how to be more selfish. Jewish women are great at taking care of people and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are grandmothers, shoveling kugel onto the plates of our grandchildren. We are mothers, fretting over the men our daughters date. We are advocates, fighting for justice in a broken world. We are teachers, inspiring children to do the same. We can be these people. They are wonderful, powerful, important people to be. We just can’t lose ourselves in the process.
We can either accept that putting ourselves first isn’t selfish, or we can shift our interpretations of the word. I am choosing the latter. I am defining “selfish” as a desire to fight for what I want. I cannot fight for what I want without the support of my fellow Jewish women who have found the courage to do so. We are adventurers who travel the world. We are artists who swirl color and texture on canvass. We are dancers who glide towards the center of the room. We are writers who make their words known. We are fighters who stand up for ourselves. We are humans who have stopped playing supporting roles and become visible. I want to learn from as many selfish women as I can and share their stories with the world.
The Selfish Series is a monthly column that puts us first. I will interview smart, strong, passionate Jewish women about “selfish” decisions they have made. These will be stories about creative pursuits, love, career ambition, education, and any other areas in which we have fought for our passions. It’s time for me and other Jewish women to recognize that we must simply make more room for ourselves. By doing so, we will be even better equipped for what we already do best: repairing the world.
To share your selfish story, email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to cite this page
Rubin, Julia. "The Selfish Series: A Column About Putting Ourselves First." 25 March 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 26, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/selfish-series-column-about-putting-ourselves-first>.